Cairns + Atherton + Daintree trip, 2021

I’d been pretty keen to get to the Wet Tropics to sample its renowned birdlife for a while. Lots of Queensland’s best birding hotspots are here, and you can visit all of them pretty easily in a relatively short trip (say, for sake of example, a mere 10 days). So off I went in April 2021, camera in hand and hope in heart…

Cairns city: teeming with Starlings and Lorikeets, just how I like it

There are a lot worse birds you could be stuck with in an urban environment than the beautifully coloured Rainbow Lorikeets and vividly glossy Metallic Starlings that stream through the streets especially at dusk, when the noise of these birds becomes positively deafening.

First evening in Cairns and I couldn’t believe how many Rainbow Lorikeets were here. Zero complaints from me!
Metallic Starlings are found in the parks and other areas and sometimes form large flocks. The males are so shiny!

The “Reef” part of “Rainforest to Reef”

One of the recommended activities for birders is to take a trip out to Michaelmas Cay on the outer reef, a little sand island that is teeming with the kind of seabirds you can’t see by sitting inside on your couch all day. These birds have exotic names like Black Noddy, Brown Booby, and Sooty Tern – but they all have one thing in common: a love for fishing.

Crested Tern with the Catch of the Day
Baby Crested Tern waiting for parents to return with foods
Common Noddy… a difficult bird to photograph with those colours around its face
I could watch the wonderful antics of the Brown Booby all day
Sooty Terns, another of the many species of Terns ticked off the list!

The Esplanade

The Cairns Esplanade is a Top 5 Queensland birding hotspot (which, ahem, makes it a Top 5 Australia hotspot), and with good reason: it has a large diversity of birds, including many waders and shorebirds that forage on and around the extensive mudflats. While I was there, a Nordmann’s Greenshank was making headlines as it was the first time this (already globally rare) bird had been seen on the east coast of Australia. I tried mightily to find it but to no avail. Ah well, there were plenty of other birds to see…

Eastern Reef Egret – white morph. Yes, there is a dark morph too…
Varied Honeyeaters have a lovely call and are plentiful along the esplanade and around the hotels near the water too
You can never, never have enough Rainbow Lorikeets, and that’s the truth, son
Bush Stone-Curlews making the esplanade car park their home
A fabulously-dressed Rock Dove… srsly tho, some different plumage here to what you’d normally see
Common Mynas are indeed quite common around here… but at least there’s no Noisy Miners
A Whimbrel is a classic example of a migratory wading bird to be found on the Esplanade

Centenary Lakes and Cairns Botanic Gardens

In the north part of Cairns lie a couple of lakes and a botanic gardens area which is fruitful for many different types of birds (and mosquitoes). No luck finding Little Kingfisher (one of my target species), but there were other birds to enjoy…

The Black Butcherbird is indeed, black. But also, the younger ones can be brown, so that’s confusing.
Scaly-Breasted Munia are like finches, which automatically makes them awesome.
Dusky Honeyeater at the botanic gardens

Cattana Wetlands: a lesser known but pretty great birding location

One of the finds of the trip was Cattana Wetlands, just north of Cairns and not even very far from the airport. An easy place to drop into for an hour, or more, if you have time. Paved paths and a bird hide makes it comfy, and the presence of uber-cute Double-Eyed Fig Parrots makes it awesome!

Double-Eyed Fig Parrot: can a bird get any cuter?
Rainbow Bee-Eater sits patiently for its formal portrait
A Forest Kingfisher grabbing a quick bite
This dragonfly seemed curious about a Crimson Finch and buzzed it several times

Atherton Tablelands, where many birds can be seen before the deluge of rain arrives

I stayed in Crater Lakes Rainforest Cottages, which is well tucked away near Lake Eacham on the cooler and rainier Atherton Tablelands. Here the remarkable Victoria’s Riflebird comes right to your door, but there are plenty of other groovy spots in the area too, like Mount Hypipamee, Wongabel State Forest, Hasties Swamp and Lake Barrine.

Victoria’s Riflebird – the male bird has plenty of juicy iridescence going on
Victoria’s Riflebird – female is also freaking cool-looking, but in a different way
Grey-Headed Robin was yet another new bird for me, and is as friendly as most Australian Robins tend to be
The ever-trustworthy Lewin’s Honeyeater makes an appearance on the shore of Lake Eacham
Rufous Shrikethrush (previously called Little Shrikethrush) are quite common here and sometimes even seen out in the open
It’s not the best picture of a Spotted Catbird, but it’s the best I could do

Can Kingfisher Park Lodge be as good as its reputation?

You bet it can.

And then the rain came, flooding out Atherton and Cairns like wet fury from the gods… and my trip was aborted… fast forward several months to November, where I decide to tempt fate and return again, with a birding companion, to finish the trip, picking up exactly where I was supposed to go next – the very highly esteemed Kingfisher Park Lodge just north of Julatten.

The normally extremely elusive Red-Necked Crake is easily found at Kingfisher Park Lodge, sometimes – as here – taking an evening bath
The Buff-Breasted Paradise Kingfisher is another key species to see in this part of the world, and even breeds on the property. Simply a stunning bird.
Red-Browed Finches and Chestnut-Breasted Mannikin go crazy at the seed feeder, allowing the keen photographer to while away hours attempting the perfect photo
A side trip to the once-amazing-but-not-so-much-any-more Abattoir Swamp birding spot yields a White-Bellied Cuckooshrike eagerly nabbing a phasmid
A male Olive-Backed Sunbird at Abattoir Swamp, where we also found other cheery birds like Eastern Yellow Robin and Northern Fantail. In the car park, mind you, not in the nearby bird hide. Lol.
The crazy-looking Northern Leaf-Tailed Gecko parks itself on the road up to Mt Lewis, just north of Kingfisher Park Lodge

Mate, it’s the Daintree

Start saying things like “Daintree River” and “rainforest” and “eco-lodges” and people’s eyes start to glaze over as they fantasise about this exotic-sounding part of the world. Probably. I dunno. All I know is they have birds there… which are best seen on one of the river cruises. We did two cruises, and both were rather good – no crocs (meh, seen plenty at Kakadu), but some exceptional close encounters.

Shining Flycatcher lives up to its name by being oh so shiny
Shining Flycatcher male-female pair nest-building at a river-overhanging spot
The huge, growling, pterodactyl-like Great-Billed Heron, which we counted ourselves lucky to see
An Azure Kingfisher makes a prawn offering to its mate on the edge of the Daintree River
The boat cruise guide had to explain more than once to the non-birders that Black Bittern is normally much harder to find than it was on this afternoon cruise, where we saw three. Three!
Amethyst Python, Australia’s largest native snake, and blessedly non-venomous (‘cos the boat got very, very close… like, reach-out-a-hand-and-pat-the-damn-thing close)
The cheery sight of a female Olive-Backed Sunbird, found everywhere up here, which is no bad thing
Wompoo Fruit Doves chillin’ in the rain in Daintree Village

Blatant tourism with a bit of birding thrown in at Port Dougie and Trinity Beach

For our last full day in the Cairns region we decided to whip through Port Douglas, where we found some birds and also some delectable gelato. In that order.

I’m like “stop the car! It’s a Black Butcherbird!” Tee hee.
One of many Helmeted Friarbirds at Flagstaff Hill Walking Trail
Imagine if you will that this nest is in a tree overhanging a busy intersection in the middle of Port Douglas, because that’s facts.
Peaceful Dove foraging… on the road. At Trinity Beach.

And sadly we return to regular, daily, non-Wet Tropics life

There isn’t too much to complain about with a trip to this part of the world. Cairns offers the birds and marine life of the reef, wader birds and swarms of lorikeets and starlings on the Esplanade, as well as other excellent birding hotspots nearby. Then Atherton Tablelands has plenty of rainforest and even a few of its own endemic birds to find (ahem, Atherton Scrubwren, ahem), and the Daintree has an amazing river with a range of cruisy options. Yeah, you could whinge about the heat, and the possibility of end-your-trip-early torrential rain, or bugs, but you certainly can’t protest the lack of supremely interesting wildlife.

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